State courts add hearing to lighten, speed up caseload

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

A statewide court rule implemented this year adds a fourth hearing for defendants, but is expected to help unclog packed dockets.

A probable cause hearing was added to court procedures in January between a defendant's arraignment and preliminary examination by the Michigan Supreme Court, which governs state courts.

The conference is aimed at streamlining the court process and ultimately saving money for prosecutors' offices and local police departments. At the hearing, a defense team can work out issues before trial, including waiving a preliminary exam, working on a plea bargain, setting future court dates, and more.

The hearing is scheduled three to seven days after an arraignment, where a suspect is formally charged before a judge, and ahead of the preliminary examination, where a judge hears testimony and determines whether there is enough evidence to send the case to trial.

Probable cause conferences have been used in courts in other states as part of a case management and administrative function, said Bill Raferty of the National Center for State Courts. Raferty didn't have a figure on how many of the estimated 3,000-4,000 American courts use the practice.

That frees up space on crowded court calendars, avoids time in court for overworked prosecutors and frees up police who otherwise would have to testify or serve subpoenas to witnesses.

For defense attorneys, another court hearing can be helpful.

"As a defense attorney any chance to get in front of a judge is always helpful," said David Cripps, who has handled many high-profile defendants in Metro Detroit courtrooms. "It also can eliminate a step of a victim having to go to court."

But a spokesman for The Michigan Association for Justice, formerly the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association, said his concern over the change is that it will "water down the process."

Lansing-area defense attorney Michael Nichols, who serves on committees on the State Bar of Michigan and the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, which gave feedback on the new rule to the Legislature, said while he likes that it gives defense attorneys an additional opportunity to get discovery and get before a judge, he still has reservations.

"It allows for prosecutors to put certain kinds of witnesses and (present) certain kinds of evidence during the conference that might put some defense attorneys in a bind," Nichols said. "I don't have a problem with efficiency. (But) let's not go so far as to make McJustice."

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said while there are "huge bugs" to be worked out, the new rules help move the system of justice in Wayne County along faster.

"We really did this already in certain cases," Worthy said. "It actually saves money ... hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Worthy has battled with former Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano over her budget. She has complained that her office is underfunded and that she needs to be able to hire more prosecutors and investigators.

In 2013, new reforms were implemented at the once-troubled 36th District Court to improve service for court users and also to pare down a bloated $5 million deficit at the court which also reportedly had a backlog of 500,000 cases.

District courts most affected

The state of Michigan has about 100 district courts and 57 circuit courts.

The new change will primarily affect the district courts where most cases begin. District court judges move the cases over to circuit courts for trial once the preliminary examination is done or if defendants waive the exam.

Depending on the case, it can be disposed of early on in the court process, Worthy said.

"It sounds like an extra layer, but it's actually more efficient," she said.

Defense attorney Gabi Silver said there's been an issue with a lot of preliminary examinations getting adjourned because attorneys don't have all the relevant information about a case so the new system will "help cut down on the adjournment of exams."

Wayne State University law school professor Peter Henning, also a former prosecutor, said the new rules give prosecutors and defense attorneys a chance to "take a second bite of the apple."

Henning said while the new rules do not offer a "revolutionary change" in how cases are handled they will allow courts to save money while maintaining the rights of defendants.

"It gets everyone on the same page (and) you can resolve a lot of cases quickly," he said. "It actually works to the defendant's benefit. You show your hand and see where things are."

The defendant's legal rights are "intact," Henning said, and the new court rules give them a chance to contest the case.

Goal is just, efficient system

Judge Thomas Boyd of 55th District Court, who served on a panel of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys that came up with the new rules, said members strove for a system that streamlines the court process while maintaining justice.

"The system needs to be efficient but it needs to be just," Boyd said. "There needs to be maximum efficiency without detracting from defendants' rights."

Boyd said the new probable cause conference gives attorneys a chance to get discovery material from prosecutors. The new court rules benefit prosecutors' offices and police departments, he said.

"You don't have to bring in police to testify or serve subpoenas to civilian witnesses who are never going to testify," Boyd said.

(313) 222-2027